Some thoughts on my trip to the Berlin Wall…..
Last week I visited Berlin, a city I have long wished to know better in a country with which I have numerous personal and professional ties. As someone who has long held a keen interest in the Cold War this was the place above all others which I had to see and most especially what remains of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin struck me as a city in perpetual change, there are cranes and building works in almost every location. Huge, modern and stylish buildings promote Germany’s financial powerbase, architecturally inspiring and physically imposing, they make up the new Berlin and it is as stark a contrast to the old, divided city as one can imagine.
There is not much left of the Wall, what remains is the preserve of the city to remember its past and attract the tourists and with the East Side Gallery it attempts to tick both boxes. This gallery is in fact, a great stretch of the wall, some 1,316 metres, which has been given over to international street artists who have covered it in various murals, few of which have any connection with the Wall and Berlin’s past. For me, this detracts from the wall itself, whilst I admired the quality of the artwork I found myself looking at the opposite side of the Wall to get a better idea of what it was and represented. With the legions of tourists visiting there at the same time, I wondered how many actually considered the Wall as it should be considered?
What has been given a heritage-protected status stands between Berlin’s main river, the Spree and new, towering business buildings of the former east side. I took this photograph from the opposite side, the river view, if you will. As with most parts of the remaining Wall, it is adorned with often senseless graffiti but it does give you a better understanding of the physical aspect of the border. So if, like me, you admire street art then go and visit but also take some time to go on the other side to get a better feel of the structure and how such a beautiful river was visually removed from those on the eastern side.
Perhaps the most striking of all the remnants of the wall is the Mauerpark. Located in the Prenzlauer Berg district, it is now an area of parkland used by tourists and young locals alike to relax in the grounds which once came to be known as the Death Strip. It is here that I touched the concrete and peered up at the top of the wall, imagining the loops of barbed wire which sat ready to cut to shreds any hope of escape over the top.
I shall look more closely at those who perished in due course but this post is an attempt for me to put some kind of sense to what I felt at seeing this Cold War monstrosity. Physically I did not find it as imposing as I thought I might yet mentally I did. This wall separated members of my mother’s family, it prompted its watchers to open her mail and for her to wait decades to meet a cousin. I stood and looked at the wall, touched its concrete and viewed it within its immediate landscape. I thought of the greyness this wall imposed on its citizens and how the city seems determined to add colour to blot out this singular colour memory. Looking at the green grass behind the wall at Mauerpark gives a sense of a new beginning for the capital, this once-called Death Strip now sees its young residents living their lives with carefree abandon.
So it is the Mauerpark and its museum and tributes to those who died at the hands of the regime to remind us and the generations to follow what the Berlin Wall meant through its photographs. I say this because words cannot truly express the landscape of Berlin during the Cold War, one needs to see an image of a family stood one side of the wall desperate for news or a glimpse of a loved one to truly understand the effect it had. What remains I saw were testament to the hopelessness of communism in practice. The imposition of an ideal which saw such cruel treatment of a fellow human being is difficult to digest. Visitors to the Wall should stop to take time to reflect, if you don’t, you will struggle to grasp just what that concrete did and meant to so many for so long.